Rapper Young DBoy Low and his friends shoot a video with the help of Project Spitfire, a nonprofit that uses music to help young people break free of the vicious cycle of gangs, drugs and violence. The group pairs young musicians with professional producers who help them record songs and videos. [Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz]

Growing up in Mexico and then Mesa, Ariz. with a mother who worked long hours, Jose Castro started writing out of loneliness. Soon he was rapping, and after turning 18 he moved to Las Vegas to try to make it big.

Several years ago he felt like he was close— performing at the House of Blues and other big venues, working with producers and musicians with major label connections.  Like many well-known rappers, his songs were about guns, girls and getting high. That also summed up his lifestyle.

It was intoxicating, but he could tell it was a vicious cycle. He promised himself that when he got a record deal, he would quit drugs. In the summer of 2009, Castro signed a contract with the label 5-7 Records, but he kept right on partying— “I broke my promise,” he said. About two weeks later, the deal fell through. Then on Nov. 11, 2009, Castro had what he describes as a near-death experience. Codeine was his drug of choice at the time, and he chugged a bottle of cough syrup while also smoking lots of marijuana. 

“I started feeling really bad, my speech was going away, my legs were going numb, I felt little shocks all over my spine, my insides were burning hot, my brain was swelling like it was going to pop in my head. I thought I was going to die, and I didn’t want to be remembered as a junkie.” 

He looked at himself in the mirror and the face staring back was gaunt, wide-eyed, a stranger. He asked God to help him, he said, and thought of his mother. Then he said he felt a powerful embrace, more loving and protective than even his mother’s hugs when he was a child. He walked out of the room knowing that he would survive and change his life.

Today at age 22, Castro— his stage name as well as his last name—is still rapping, and his songs still sound raw and edgy, throbbing with the tension of street life. He raps about “hope for the ‘hood,” the power of his faith, the mistakes he’s made and the tragedy of young people losing their way, like the mother of his almost-two-year-old daughter—“a young girl looking for answers … a lost angel.”

Now music is Castro’s way of exploring his own struggles and—without preaching—offering advice and inspiration to those still caught up in the vicious cycle of gangs, drugs and violence.

Using music to help young people break free of that cycle is also the mission of Project Spitfire, a year-old grassroots non-profit organization. Founded last January by youth worker Henry Mann, with start-up funding from the prominent anti-violence group CeaseFire, Project Spitfire pairs young musicians with professional producers who help them record songs and videos. Spitfire also provides the young artists a $100 signing bonus, photo shoots and publicity. Project Spitfire is in the process of recording a compilation CD that along with performances will help show youth that they have alternatives and opportunities. Mann is insistent that the music and the group stay genuine, working with young people who really are or have been involved with gangs and violence, encouraging them to express themselves uncensored, steering clear of “positive hip hop” clichés.

“There is a lot of really crappy conscious hip hop out there where they’re just saying ‘put down the guns,’ but obviously that’s not working,” said Mann, 23, who moved to Chicago from Maine in 2006 to attend the University of Chicago, where he studied for two years before transferring to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he is finishing a degree in political science. He worked on youth media projects through CeaseFire and the social service agency Sullivan House, including documentary work with youth in the juvenile justice system. “There’s a middle ground between that and glorifying what goes on out there. I’m just asking you to tell your story, who you are,” Mann said. “If we can build relationships, then we can connect them with other organizations too, and be a bridge.” 

Last winter Spitfire, working largely through CeaseFire’s connections, put out a call for musicians to submit demos and personal statements. The project has signed six artists, and it’s looking for more. Marilyn Pitchford, program manager for CeaseFire West, has referred several young men to Project Spitfire and says she is highly impressed by Mann’s passion for the project.

“It can be a great outlet for some of the guys, if they’ve been a victim or a perpetrator” of violence, she said. “Often we only hear one side of a story. This is a way for them to tell their story, I think it’s a great outlet for them. A lot of them don’t ever get counseling or therapy. So this can be a great resource, a healing tool.”

For Castro, that process began when he moved to Chicago several months before hearing of Project Spitfire, after a brief stint in Washington state where he had gone looking for work only to find that temporary construction and other jobs were shutting down for the winter. His biological father, whom he barely knew, invited him to come live in Cicero so the two could build a relationship. Turning over a new leaf, in general, this is where Castro made his musical transformation. He recently completed a CD called “Spiritual Warfare,” in part with the help of Spitfire and affiliated producer Raul Parra, also featuring rapper Nobull, another Project Spitfire artist.  Castro has signed with a local label called Q7 Records. Many of the songs are about love— of Jesus and his fellow human beings. (Listen to Castro’s music here.)

“I used to think love was for sissies and you weren’t supposed to show it,” he said. “But love is the greatest weapon you can use to get someone on your side.”

Castro hands his CD out to young people on the streets, engaging them in conversation when possible. He performed recently at New Life Church in Cicero, a far cry from the House of Blues. Sometimes he misses the success he was having in Las Vegas.

“I had it made— my own place, cars, girls. But how do you acquire that? Selling drugs, hurting people, not even caring about your loved ones. It isn’t worth it.”

He eventually hopes to build an international career as a Christian rapper, starting with performances around Chicago. He raps in Spanish and English, and wants to tour Mexico and South America.

“It’s a slow process,” he said. “But you don’t want something like a microwave, you want something like a crock pot—it tastes better.”

Like Castro, another Spitfire artist, Eric Brown aka Young DBoy Low, has been writing and rapping nearly his whole life. His nine siblings and his parents are all artistic—he grew up surrounded by painting, poetry, gospel music and hip hop. But living in Bronzeville and other tough South Side neighborhoods, music and art weren’t enough to keep them out of trouble. DBoy has been shot at numerous times and beaten up, he said. His songs brim with violence and tragedy. DBoy and his brother, Chill, both 22 years old, applied together to join Spitfire. Soon after they got the news that they’d been accepted, Chill was jailed on charges of possession of a firearm and discharging a firearm. DBoy said he was present during the incident leading to the arrest, and is lucky he didn’t end up hurt or behind bars also.

“It shows even when we go real hard in our music about stopping the violence, we still get caught up in it,” he said. “You try to be goody two shoes, but if you haven’t been a victim of violence you can’t just sit there and say ‘stop the violence.’ You don’t know how hard it is. Here we see violence every day, whether verbal or physical. It’s always easy to find, and if you don’t pay attention it will find you.”

[Click here to view photos of DBoy]

And DBoy said violence—in the form of retribution—can find you in Chicago even when you try to escape the gang culture where much of the trouble originates. “It’s your enemies who won’t let you move on,” he said. “Rival gangs don’t care about you wanting what we call ‘out.’ They don’t care about you changing your life and wanting to raise your kids in a different environment. You will still be gunned down on sight.”

“See, you can try to erase your own past, but you can’t erase the pain someone else has suffered due to the hands of your gang sign,” DBoy said.

DBoy writes his lyrics in neat cursive in a battered black and red notebook he’s had for years. Finished songs are in the front of the book, notes and brainstorms are in the back. The lyrics are full of word play, homages to Chicago and delicate images mixed with harsh realities. The song “Gentrifications,” for which Project Spitfire helped him shoot a video, whimsically describes different Chicago public housing projects as individual people who meet tough fates. A man named Robert Taylor who is “tall as hell” ends up overdosing. A silent girl named Ida B. Wells lived on 39th Street and was raped by her father. When she took his gun and tried to fight back, the police came and shot her dead. 

DBoy sings about his own life—running away from home and being abused by his stepfather, “and there’s nothing you can do because he’s three times your size.” He also writes about the lives of family members—his cousin shot in a church parking lot, his grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s, his aunt who died suddenly of cardiac disease: “She loved everybody, how’d she get a bad heart?”

Invoking the Christian Fenger Academy High School student beaten to death in 2009: “They say loving gets you killed, so I stay froze. I know Derrion Albert’s mom’s heart is closed.”

He hopes that by talking bluntly about the issues that so many young people face, he can help children get through the hard times—“so someone who feels that they are alone can hear my music and know that they’re not alone.”

Along with specific streets, buildings and other landmarks in Chicago, the city’s famous wind is a constant presence in DBoy’s songs. “If you ever watch a scary movie, right before the killer strikes the wind blows.”

One of the songs he’s recorded with Spitfire’s help is called “Too Young to Die.”  Sitting in his girlfriend’s apartment in Englewood, where young people are shot on a regular basis, he raps softly:

“Too young to live, too young to try

How does all this pain feel when you’re too young to cry?

Even when a bird gets wings, you can tell he’s too young to fly.

But in the city of the wind, you’re never too young to die.”

Check out DBoy on YouTube.

This article is the fourth installment in a series on youth violence. Funding for this project was provided by The Chicago Community Trust via the Community Media Workshop, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, and the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and lecturer in the journalism graduate program at Northwestern University, where she heads the Social Justice & Investigative specialization.